No African Pope, but have Catholics edged Anglicans?

Tuesday March 19 2013

By David Sseppuuya

Opportunities do come in life, for us to make history, and many times we miss them. One hundred or 150 years from today, the generations then may look back at ours and wonder about how unenlightened we were in some spheres of life.

Take Church leadership: they will wonder about how come a people who lived in the age of air travel, the Internet, and pinhole surgery, had for long been so blind to the obvious – that the strength of the Church, across its main denominations – Catholicism, Anglicanism, Pentecostalism (CAP) – in the late 20th and through the 21st Centuries lay in the Global South, and that is where its leadership should come from.

Once history’s opportunity goes, it may take generations for a similar one to come around. Did the Roman Catholic Church recognise that, with the election of an Argentine cardinal to be the new Pope, or did they completely fluff the opportunity to elect a black African? (There have been three African Popes: Victor 1, Miltiades, and Gelasius 1, all of whom were Berbers from North Africa). For a month since Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, there had been passionate belief that Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson would emerge the white smoke choice from the conclave at the Vatican.

Last year, the Anglicans too, had their chance to elect a spiritual head who would represent the tilt of the faith to the global south. With the resignation of Rowan Williams, there was hope, nay expectation, that Ugandan-born John Sentamu would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of worldwide Anglicanism.

While technically he was not the automatic choice to accede, Sentamu’s incumbency as Archbishop of York, hierarchically the second-highest office in the Church of England, for long made him the frontrunner to become the first black man to have spiritual oversight over the global Anglican Communion. But Sentamu, nurtured and discipled in the evangelical Christianity of Uganda, was passed over in favour of a local boy, Justin Welby.

Why is it important for the spiritual heads to be African or global southern? It is because of the reality of Christendom today. In the 20th century, the Catholic Church grew faster in Africa than anywhere else, with 16 per cent of the world’s Catholics living on the continent.

Worldwide, Anglicanism is strongest in Africa – in 2008 your columnist attended GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference, a pan-Anglican forum in Jerusalem that acknowledged that the denomination’s stronghold is in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, and Rwanda. Pentecostalism, meanwhile, is the one brand of Christianity in Africa that is thriving most, its growth phenomenal in the last 40 years. Pentecostals now represent 12 per cent, or about 107 million, of Africa’s population of nearly 890 million people.

But there are deeper reasons why Africa should be at the helm, reasons that also put to rest the misconception that Christianity is a ‘mzungu’ religion that is alien to Africa: as a baby Jesus Christ was exiled in Egypt, which carries symbolic or, some would say, divine significance as a cradle. Simon, the man who carried Jesus’ cross on the way to crucifixion, was an African from Cyrene (Libya) – yet more symbolic significance.

The Church in Antioch (Acts 11: 19-30), the city where the disciples of Christ were first called Christians, was founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, and had Africans in its leadership (“Simeon called Niger/black man, Lucius of Cyrene” in Acts 13:1). The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 of the Bible was probably the first non-Jew to take the Gospel into the outside world. Early leaders who shaped Christianity in the first two or three centuries after Christ, like Tertullian, Augustine of Hippo, and Cyprian, were Africans as well.

In the book ‘Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia’ (IVP Books, 2011), which features the Ugandans Simeon Nsibambi and Janaani Luwum among 17 Global South stand-outs, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom write that, “Today , in the early 21st century, there are far more active church participants in Africa than in Europe; a strong majority of the adherents to major denominational families like Pentecostals, Anglicans and Catholics live outside North America and Europe; more missionaries are being sent out from places like South Korea, Brazil and Nigeria than from any European country.”

The Global South must avoid others’ earlier pitfalls, put rather crudely in popular-speak as: “When Christianity went to Rome, they made it a state religion; when it went to Britain they made it a tourist attraction; when it went to America they made it a business.” Africa should remain faithful to the evangelical roots of the faith, put very succinctly in Jesus’ last words on Earth: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”